Use of animals in medical research

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Animals are used at various levels of medical research. They are fundamental in testing the toxicity of drugs, check safety of various products and in medical training. An ongoing debate has questioned the ethicality of using animals in medical research putting into consideration the pain, suffering and quality of life they are subjected for the ‘selfish’ interest of humans. Proponents of the debate have banked on the numerous medical discoveries which have been successful using animals as experimental models. Abolitionists use animal protection concepts to push their agenda and propose using alternative models to realize same results as the ones using animals. In the recent years, progressive changes have been made to regulate medical research and ensure that there is no wastage or unnecessary subjection of animals into distress. The 3R approach was proposed to reduce wastage, refine the procedures used and replace some aspects which can be replaced. Animal rights activists have been criticized for being impractical in their approach. At one-point animal models will be needed to develop animal medications. Animal and human physiology is closely similar which qualifies animals in most of the areas in medical research.


Despite all the benefits associated with animal use in medical research, their use is still a subject of debate with various arguments being welled to support or discredit it. Animal experiments are used across the world to gain information that can be helpful in addressing medical challenges affecting humans. In the process, the animals’ quality of life is compromised. They live a shorter life while they could have lived longer. The animals are also subjected to suffering and distress in the process. Every year, about twenty-six million animals are used in medical and scientific research. Majority of the animals are specifically bred to be used in the research. They are produced in controlled models to ensure that they fit the assumptions made in the methodology used. Animal models were used in the invention of useful medical interventions. They include the discovery of insulin where dogs were used as animal models, the discovery of polio vaccine where monkeys were used, carcinogen screening which was made successful using rat cells, computer assisted tomography which was conducted using pig models and invention of rabies vaccine using mouse models. Arguments supporting use of animal models in medical research are founded on the progress achieved while using them. Ethically, it would be acceptable to use animals to conduct medical research which would be used to save human life. Arguments against it are founded on the need to save the animals from suffering, distress and improve their quality of life by using alternative models in medical research. This paper will explore the arguments raised by proponents and opponents on use of animals in medical research.

Benefits: Proponents’ Argument

The major argument in favor of animal use in medical is that it is morally right for several animals to die if there are great benefits at the end of the experiment. Scientists are always required to follow a set of principles so that they can reduce wastage, suffering and improve the quality of life while using the animals. Experimental techniques using animals have been improved over time to ensure that there is reduced wastage. The 3R (Reduce, Refine, Replacement) approach is used today in medical and scientific research. A single animal can be used to provide experimental materials such as blood, cells and blood to conduct several experiments. Techniques in data analysis have also been improved (Fisher, 2014). Scientists are required to use the required number of animals without subjecting a huge number to suffering while they could have used a smaller sample size. While choosing invasion techniques, the least harmful and painful are used if the results will not be affected. In some cases, human volunteers are used if the expected results do not violate their rights and health. Epidemiological studies are also conducted on specific subjects since there is no need to repeat an experiment when the research can collect empirical data from the population and use it to conduct a given experiment. Use of animals is therefore resorted when all options have been exhausted. Alternative techniques are being employed to ensure that the animals are saved. For instance, in cancer research, the use of cells has taken over the use of whole animals.

Animal physiology is closely compared to that of humans. It is therefore safer and morally right to use animals in medical research as compared to using humans in the research. It is important to note that no sane scientist is interested in causing intentional suffering to animals. According to Festing and Wilkinson (2007), animal models are used in situations where it cannot be avoided. However, scientists have accepted controls put in place to regulate medical research. In the United Kingdom, as is in other regions where medical research is being conducted, justification to use animal models in research has to be justified. License is granted and the number of animals the researcher aims to use in the experiment identified. Cosmetic testing has been discouraged since it leads to unnecessary suffering to the animals. In a study conducted in the United States focusing on General Practitioners’ opinion on the issue, it was established that about 88% of the participants appreciated the role animals played in medical inventions. They were therefore supporting controlled use of the animals in research considering the benefits they would have later on. For instance, one would consider the number of people who are affected by asthma every year. Such a huge number would probably be succumbing if animal models were not used to develop a management plan that is widely used across the globe. Humans cannot be used in the place of animals in research. Animal rights activists do not agree with any law which tries to justify the use of animals in medical research. The 3R approach is therefore rejected considering that it still allows use of animals but on a regulated structure. The moral status of animals is below that of humans. Ironically, opponents of animal use in medical research have at one time or the other benefited from the same discoveries they denounce.

In each country, there are bodies which regulate use of animals in medical and scientific research. Individuals wishing to use animals in their work should provide a good proposal clearly outlining the benefits the research will have on humans. Every year, many proposals are turned down if they fail to justify the need to have them conducted. The 3R approach has been accepted in many regions as a safe and economical use of animals to add the expected value to humans and at the same time reduce the number of animals being subjected to the suffering and the time they are in distress. There are few validated techniques which have been adopted worldwide. In some regions, the push to stop using animals in medical research is not a pressing issues and so regulation is not done exhaustively (Greek & Greek, 2010). With the lifesaving discoveries mentioned above proponents and opponents would be glad to be alive considering that the vaccines they were given in their infancy could have been developed using animal models.

The use of animal models can be attributed to the high life expectancy in the United States. Using such models, life expectancy across the globe has been increased. In the United States, life expectancy is 70 years as compared to 40 years before major medical discoveries were made in the 19th and 20th century. Medical research is highly planned. There are several processes which must be completed before the actual experiment is done. The researcher must use available literature in the field to predict the results in the proposed study and in most cases, convince other professionals in the field on its need. Animals’ body functions are closely like humans as well. The organs are the same with their functions being closely similar. It therefore applies that the experiments done and the response recorded can be closely similar if applied to humans. While developing medicines, they are tested on animals. In such a case, it is hard to use alternative models.

Proponents of the argument have accepted that it would be important to replace some of the research with alternative models if the results expected will not be affected. Therefore, five justifications have to be done to grant permission to use animals in medical research. They include a detailed rationale behind choosing a specific animal for the research, the specific objectives of the study and the benefits it will have on humanity, the animal species to be used in the study, specific details showing the procedures that would be conducted on the animals and the design to be used in the study. From the arguments, it is evident that proponents have made required attempts to reduce wastage and ensure that animals are only used in situations where alternative models cannot be applied. The underlying benefits always guide the experiments and hence justifying the need to use several animals and provide a discovery that would save millions of lives later.

Opponents’ Arguments

For the purpose of this discussion, opponents will be referred to as abolitionists. Abolitionists are not concerned with the far a given study has gone, the benefits which will be generated from its completion or the time already spent if there are animals being used. Their argument also holds ethical grounds considering that animals are subjected to unnecessary pain and distress and killed after the research. Abolitionists have used the following arguments to support their case. Many animal models have failed to realize the expected results with the prediction recorded failing to match with the response in humans. Normally, animal models are used since animal physiology and structure is similar to that of humans. However, some organisms cannot thrive outside human bodies. For instance, developing HIV virus outside the human body using animals has failed several times. HIV’s genetic material is so unstable making it hard to develop an effective management plan that can wipe it out. In such a case, alternative models have been used and significant success realized with time. Abolitionists use such a case to purport that even if animal models were abolished, significant success would be recognized. Gradualism would be needed while making such an approach. The approach used by abolitionists calling for immediate criminalization of animal use in research would create unnecessary tension and limit the discovery of knowledge that would save humans in future (Home Office, 2014). The huge number of animals dedicated to medical research every year shows how intense research is taken across the world. The argument that animals are subjected to unnecessary suffering is therefore valid but the benefits being realized from it cannot be ignored.

According to Posner (2000), animal rights movement is already in place with issues on animal protection being top on the agenda. Abolitionists progress the argument that animals have rights which ought to be respected. However, the rights are different considering that the animals cannot be able to make moral judgment. Abolitionists therefore use a different approach based which tries to establish the ethics surrounding the action. Animals which are used in medical research can reproduce in large numbers and intentionally subjected to pain and loneliness. Another argument that has been leveled to abolish the use of animals in medical research is the realization that about nine in every ten experimental drugs fail. The animals used in such research are subjected to pain in vain. Despite such animals responding positively to the drugs, they fail in humans due to the difference in animal and human physiology. It is considered wasteful to use such a huge number of animals for a given study. In a given study, a researcher may use up to two hundred animals for a single study. It is worse if the results from such a study fails to meet the expectations or do not apply to human population. For instance, while considering the cure for cancer, various medications have been developed and worked marvelously in mice. However, the same medicines failed to produce similar results in humans. It is therefore not necessary to subject all those animals to pain and suffering only to get drugs which cannot be used to cure the specified condition.

Animals’ basic right to fair and treatment is violated when they are subjected to medical research. There are many alternatives which abolitionists have proposed to take over from the use of animals in medical research. Medical simulation can be used in teaching instead of using live animals (Arney, 2009). Medical simulation uses alternative models without necessarily killing animals. The results can be similar. Technology is taking over with majority of medical operations being assisted by computer technology. It would therefore be important for medical research to adopt new strategies that would ensure that similar results were obtained without using animals. In warfare, robots have been used to a great extent in situations where humans would have been used. This translates that in a situation where researchers were interested in developing robots to replace animal use in research it would be possible. It does not matter whether the number of animals is reduced in the 3R approach if there are animals suffering and being killed on basis of medical research.


Human suffering has greatly been reduced by discoveries made in medicine. It would be hard to imagine a world without vaccinations and other drugs which have been discovered using animal models. While abolitionists make strong arguments on the ethics of medical research, it would be wrong to abandon the serious projects already underway and condemn the already successful ones considering that there are control bodies which have evaluated the situation and come up with clear guidelines to ensure that there is no wastage or unnecessary suffering on the animals. Animal protection agencies have made many proposals in the past which have been reviewed and the 3R approach proposed as the balance between proponents and opponents. The animals used for medical research purposes are produced for that purpose only. They are rarely collected from the general population. After use they are killed to end their suffering. It is therefore right to allow medical research take its course with gradual changes being made with time to replace animals with alternative models which can yield similar results.

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  1. Arney, D. R. (2009). Welfare of large animals in scientific research. Scandinavian Journal of Laboratory Animal Science, 36(1), 97–101.
  2. Festing, S. & Wilkinson, R. (2007). The ethics of animal research. Talking Point on the use of animals in scientific research. EMBO Reports, 8(6), 526–530.
  3. Fisher, M. W. (2014). Is there a need for a more expansive use of ethics and values in reflecting on the use of animals in scientific research? Animals.
  4. Greek, R., & Greek, J. (2010). Is the use of sentient animals in basic research justifiable? Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine: PEHM, 5, 14.
  5. Home Office. (2014). Guidance on the operation of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986. Publications GOV.UK. 1474100287- 9781474100281
  6. Posner, R. A. (2000). Animal Rights. Yale Law Journal, 110(3), 527.
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